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The business of the outdoor essay

BY CHRIS MADSON

Once upon a time, the personal essay was a staple of periodical literature, but even in just my lifetime that has changed. These days, many magazines have whittled the essays they run down to an editorial of 300 words opposite the table of contents and a regular column or two. The editorial is always written by a staffer. All too often, it’s not really an essay at all, just an ad for the current issue’s content. The columns may or may not be essays— if they are, they are constrained by the limited space they occupy as well as the views of the publisher.

There are a few big magazines that specialize in running essays. A handful even run an occasional outdoor essay. Several of John McPhee’s books on outdoor subjects began as essays for The New Yorker. I’m flabbergasted to find an outdoor essay now and then in The Atlantic, and a few of the major American newspapers that remain run the odd outdoor essay in their Sunday editions.

With these observations in mind, I’ve come to a couple of conclusions about essays in the big periodical markets.

First, it’s probably pointless to query an essay. It’s a lot like querying humor or poetry — the editor’s decision to buy depends mostly on the execution of the idea, not the quality of the idea in the abstract. All of us who freelance have been cautioned to never submit a manuscript; always query first. Like so many other pieces of good advice, this one has several unspoken caveats, one of which is that you can’t sell an essay with a query.

Second, when the big markets buy an essay, they’re buying the author at least as much as they’re buying the words. In a moment of supernatural clarity, you may have discovered “the Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything,” but you’re going to have trouble selling the resulting essay to The New Yorker unless your name is Truman Capote.

The situation in newspapers seems even more extreme. The big dailies keep a few commentators around, a group of the anointed whose names are household words and whose ranks will not be swelled by some unknown from Spotted Horse, Wyoming. Circumstances on the outdoor beat are even more difficult. The outdoor pages are steadily melting into the classified ads as corporate owners insist, all evidence to the contrary, that nobody reads articles on hunting, fishing, hiking or other outdoor sports anymore.

Of course, in this era of multimedia, there are other ways of publishing essays. My sense is that the dialogue of ideas that was a staple of periodicals has migrated into books.

If you are blessed with unusual insight into modern politics or modern psychological disorders — which may amount to much the same thing — you may be well on your way to a paying career as an essayist in book form. If you are unfortunate enough to write essays about the outdoors, your chances are not nearly so good.

If you still have access to a real, live, brick-and-mortar bookstore, take a look at the shelf space reserved to the general topics of the outdoors, nature, hunting, fishing, birding, camping and associated subjects. Compare this square footage with the space allotted to self-help, fantasy and romance novels. The difference is a good indicator of the market potential for a collection of outdoor essays.

There is, of course, one other medium worth considering here, that avalanche of “content”— as a writer, I can barely describe how I loathe that term—out on the Internet. The various sites and services available online have become by far the world’s largest publishers of the essay. All a would-be essayist needs to expose his work to the public is a computer, a link to the web and something to say.

The good news about web publishing is that we can all avoid those frustrating correspondences with editors who, as every writer has concluded, wouldn’t know a fine piece of writing if it came with a certificate from the Nobel Prize committee. The bad news is that it may be even harder to get paid for an online piece than it is for one that appears in print.

In 2011, the company Technorati reported that only 4 percent of bloggers consider revenue from their blogs as their “primary source of income.” It’s worth noting that only a small proportion of bloggers— 18 percent— are trying to make a living with their blogs. However, even in this group of professionals, only 37 percent see their blogs as their “primary source of income.”

In 2013, the folks at Technorati looked more carefully at bloggers they classified as “influencers.” This is an even more restrictive classification than “professional blogger.” Influencers are bloggers who can demonstrate reasonable traffic on their sites and even a certain minimal effect their blogs have on readers and their buying decisions.

According to Technorati, 64 percent of these influencers said they make money. Half of that group reported income of less than $1,000 a year; another 20 percent reported income between $1,000 and $5,000. Only 11 percent reported income of more than $30,000 a year. Most of that revenue comes from ad sales in the form of banners or text ads.

Blogs that post daily content have significantly higher traffic than blogs that post only once a week. Since the optimum length for a blog post is around 1,500 words, the volume of writing required is staggering, even greater than the amount daily news people once churned out. Bloggers, like me, who post once every two or three months, can expect the kind of traffic I see on my site. Sometimes, I may get 60 or 70 readers with a new post.

A growing number of magazines are establishing themselves online and expanding the market for outdoor essays. Since an online publication isn’t limited by space in the way print publications are, there’s one less obstacle for an essay to clear with editors. Unfortunately, that obstacle is replaced with another: the shortened attention span of the typical Internet surfer. As I see it, long-form essays are no more welcome on most electronic sites than they are in print publications.

Many writers consider their blogging and contributions to the social media as advertising for their efforts in other media. That’s at least part of the reason I continue to blog and post on social media. There’s also the hard fact that I can’t find another home for some of the pieces I write. If there’s no market for an essay, I’m probably better off posting it than throwing it in the trash.

I’m doing shorter bits on Facebook these days, micro-essays that I hope fit the reading habits of the typical Facebook visitor. There are sometimes as many as three or four dozen people who at least do me the favor of clicking “Like” on one of these from time to time.

Have these posts helped my “brand?” I have no idea. Have they helped me sell material in more traditional markets? I can’t say. If I were a better businessman, I’d make a greater effort to answer these questions, although I suspect I would find that the measurable return doesn’t justify the effort.

So why, with all these difficulties, does any professional ever bother with outdoor essays?

I imagine most of us who put words to paper have a deep, if insecure, regard for our own views, even if some of those are unmarketable. Sometimes we write first and look for markets later. I wouldn’t be surprised if some of that unsold work is our very best.

Sometimes, an idea is simply struggling to get out. It finds its way up through the mists and unformed apprehensions that pass as thought in the human mind, crystallizing at a moment of its own choosing, often unexpected, nearly always inconvenient, since it is likely to interfere with far more efficient ways of generating income. You may be better at ignoring these ideas than I am. If not, you have very little choice: Write first, sell later. ♦

— Chris Madson is a freelance writer specializing in conservation and hunting subjects. He lives in Cheyenne, Wyoming.

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